So much of bird hunting is about loss.
Take yesterday, for example. In the truck, on the icy road to our destination, I lost traction a couple of times. On the hunt, I lost track of Leslie periodically, as well as the friends we hunted with. Peat, whose pad has healed nicely thanks to the booties which I’m still making him wear because he looks so goofy in them, lost both booties who knows where. I lost my footing several times in the icy snow, including once when hustling to find Peat, who I could hear barking hysterically up a tree down in a brushy hole, presumably at a long-departed dusky grouse; I took a super-chalant header, involuntarily separated from my gun, which ended up facing me with the safety off (must have been caused by the ground), which made me ponder the potential loss of life or limb from such an escapade. A bit later on, Peat pointed way down a precipitous, icy slope, and I decided the only way to get to him within a half-hour was to use my butt as a sled, which worked quite effectively, an idea for whose brilliance I congratulated myself several times while in motion before planting the ol’ boots and springing into the ready position just as the covey busted. Moments later, Peat brought me the chukar which had lost its life, and I went for my radio to tell Leslie about it and discovered that I’d lost my radio somewhere in the snow during the slide.
There are other kinds of loss, too, of course, some good and some not so good. One of the good ones is maybe the main reason I hunt: to lose myself in the quest to find birds to shoot. Identity evaporates, and there’s no there there. We all need a break from ourselves once in a while, and projecting my self onto my dogs in breath-taking country is an all-expenses-paid vacation from man handing on misery to man (apologies to Philip Larkin). I’m sincere when I say it’s a shame this economy requires the killing of something truly innocent even though it sort of exists outside the equation; it’s incidental and it isn’t. I guess there really is no such thing as a free lunch.
And then there’s the loss of daylight as the season progresses, and the sense of loss that comes with declining temperatures and angles of light, which helps me better understand one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems:
There’s a certain Slant of Light —
Winter Afternoons —
That oppresses, like the Heft —
Of Cathedral Tunes —
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us —
We can find no scar,
But internal difference —
Where the Meanings, are —
None may teach it — Any —
‘Tis the seal Despair —
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air —
When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows — hold their breath —
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death —
And then there’s the cycle of dogs. Although Aspen wasn’t a hunting dog, he hunted, and spent most of his days in the forest. And my brother-in-law lived through him. Sudden massive cancer, a few days left, maybe. Losing our dogs is an imperial affliction we knowingly set ourselves up for, a loss we know is coming from the day we take the pup from its litter-mates or rescue it from the shelter.
As the bell curve of a dog’s vitality starts to line up with our own, the profit and loss intensifies, like the lowering light in the last month of chukar season. And we’re all aware, and it’s okay. Losing stuff is better than okay. It just is. It’s where the meanings are.